2020 - Winner
William McMahon is not the obvious candidate for an extensive scholarly biography, but Tiberius with a Telephone is a substantial and surprising achievement, making a credible case for his significance. Patrick Mullins has produced a sweeping comedy of manners: sophisticated in its handling of political and social context, a pleasure to read and with a feel for the absurd. He marshals the apparently trivial incident to reveal so much of how politics was done through the 1950s and 1960s.
McMahon is neither hero, nor villain. Instead Mullins has painted a satisfying picture of a complicated, driven, flawed, yet unexpectedly sympathetic figure. McMahon’s sense of self, so often at odds with the judgement of others, is given its due. He was a conscientious political actor whom many regarded as lacking conscience. Mullins cleverly interweaves McMahon’s life and times with an account of McMahon’s futile efforts to write his own story: the result is a biography that not only tells much of its subject but of the nature of biographical writing itself.
Mullins’ biography demonstrates a command and surety of voice which sustains the reader’s interest. Political biography can be tedious reading. The author’s study of the genre, impressive research and masterful use of McMahon’s unpublished autobiography does much to recover McMahon’s achievements, despite his manifest flaws. This outstanding book shows there is still a place for classic biography.